• milking robots Canadian Dairy

The Impacts of Milking Robots

WHY ARE MILKING ROBOTS ATTRACTIVE?

According to Dr. Diana Stuart from Michigan State University, and Dr. Rebecca Schewe from Mississippi State University, there are four primary answers to this question:

  1. REDUCE LABOUR ON FARM
  2. THE NEED TO UPGRADE FACILITIES
  3. HIGHER PRODUCTION WITH A THIRD MILKING
  4. TRANSITION THE FARM TO THE NEXT GENERATION

The answer may vary from farm to farm, but from the numerous producers I’ve spoken to and worked with, the primary answer is usually "to reduce labour." Larger farms want to reduce the amount of hired labour, and smaller, family farms want more flexibility in their schedules. Large or small, it comes down to labour efficiency and being able to get more done in less time. There are various studies that support a 20-30% reduction in labour for milking-related activities when switching to an automatic milking system (AMS). In a 2003 Canadian study by McKnight, Rodenburg and Fisher, they compared 22 AMS herds with parlour herds of a similar size and discovered that for milking, related set-up and clean-up, it took 1.02 minutes per cow per day in the AMS system vs. 3.28 minutes per cow per day in the parlour system. Only 31% of the time spent on milking!

Creating a schedule that can bend to daily or seasonal duties can be quite appealing compared to having a schedule that revolves around milking times—it becomes about doing what you want when you want to do it (see Figure 1). It’s the rare producer who hasn’t been in the middle of making hay when the clock says it’s milking time, forcing him back to the barn. Whether it’s doing field work or spending time with family, having the choice of when to go to the barn can make life a lot more enjoyable.

milking robots daily activities free time stats

Some producers would also rather manage more equipment than more people. A milking robot will do the same job, day in and day out, will always be on time, and will never complain. Of course, there is the occasional inconvenient phone call from
the robot, but producers will say these are generally rare.

A DIFFERENT MANAGEMENT STYLE 

It’s not surprising that managing a farm with milking robots requires some different management techniques than a conventional farm. Below are a few of the main areas that I’ve found change significantly when a producer starts using an AMS:

Data management

Having an AMS will substantially increase the amount of available data on your farm; it may even be overwhelming for some. It’s easy to sit down in front of the computer and get lost in all of the numbers, charts, and graphs, which makes it imperative that you know what you’re looking at and know how to find what you need.

Here are a few tools that can help make data management easier:

  • Training courses – Many of the equipment dealers have great training courses or round table forums on navigating the computer software and interpreting the numbers. These sessions are also a great place to discuss ideas and experiences with other producers.
  • Knowledgeable advisors – Aligning yourself with knowledgeable advisors can be very valuable when trying to figure things out. These advisors can be a good resource for ideas and problem solving.
  • Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) – These numbers can be incredibly useful to streamline the data management process. Once you know which main KPIs you should be looking at, you can work with your advisors to figure out what they should be on your farm. You can likely get a standard set of KPIs from the equipment dealer and compare them with where you’re currently at and where you want to go. Here is a short list of KPIs and where you want them to be: Rest feed (<5%), Milkings/cow/day (2.6-3.5), Failures/ Incompletes (<5%), Free time (>10%). Since averages can be misleading, it’s important to look at individual cows and not just the averages.

Time management

As discussed earlier, robotic milking creates a much more flexible schedule. The key to this, however, is making the most of your extra time. A good way to start is by making a list of all the necessary daily tasks and prioritizing them. Once that’s done, you can then start planning the other tasks you want to get done during the rest of the day. Prioritizing is a great way to make sure that nothing is overlooked. With 64% of your day open (Figure 1), you don’t want to let it go to waste!

Cow management

With an AMS, cows are no longer seen at each milking time to check for mastitis, injuries, etc. At the same time, it’s likely easier than ever before to manage individual cows in an AMS. To do this well, time needs to be spent in front of the computer looking for cows on the various lists and then following up by visually checking those cows in the barn. Some producers are using their smartphones to help in this area, which is handy if you have several lists to go through.

A well-designed barn with conveniently placed gates leading to a catch pen will greatly assist with catching and sorting cows, and moving them to where you want them.

Here are two areas where an AMS can help better manage your cows:

  • Heat/sick cow detection – Many robotic milking units come with some sort of activity meters, rumination tracking and/or heat detection devices. If installed properly, these tools are very useful for detecting cows in heat as well as sick cows, doing their job consistently 24/7. When you check the reports, you’re looking for cows with irregular rumination or activity they don’t normally have; these are the cows you need to monitor. Some units will also predict the optimal time for insemination based on the cow’s activity and the herd’s previous records. I’ve also seen numerous cases where sick cows were detected earlier than they would have been in a conventional facility because of reduced activity and/or rumination.
  • Udder health – One of the unique features of an AMS is that each udder quarter is milked individually, so data is collected about each quarter. This information enables more accurate monitoring and treatment. The AMS allows you to track chronic problem cows or new infections, and act accordingly. Since most robots don’t measure actual SCC, comparing the numbers with DHI may prove useful.

Impact on cow health and production

Table 1 shows what the typical day should look like for a cow in any free stall barn compared to a cow in an AMS.

milking robots data cow activity cow health n

You’ll notice the numbers vary most in “Social interactions” and “Lying/resting” behaviour. In an AMS facility, you want the cow to be able to choose what she wants to do when she wants to do it. Cow comfort is every bit as important as before (if not more) because you want the cows to be able to move around as naturally as possible—lame and sick cows won’t do that. Having comfortable stalls that promote lying behaviour is important, but so is proper access to the robot, adequate water and bunk space, as well as space to socialize and walk around. The primary goal needs to be to keep the cows comfortable and stress-free, and not to restrict the patterns they want to create. You want the cows to reach their potential by creating their own patterns. Your most comfortable cows will still make the most milk, just like they always have.

As stated earlier, the third main reason for installing milking robots is to increase production via more frequent milkings. There is plenty of evidence to support this when switching from 2x milking to an AMS (Table 2). However, Table 2 also shows that when switching from 3x milking to an AMS, milk production actually drops. Though your average milkings per cow per day may increase to 3.1 or even higher, many cows will choose to get milked less than 3 times per day, so we see a decrease in milk production. There is great benefit to increasing the number of milkings from 2 to 3, but beyond that the benefit is marginal.

If you are going from 2x to an AMS, one potential concern that can arise is reduced fertility due to more stress on the cows and a greater negative energy balance postpartum from producing more milk.

milking robots production and frequency

In a 2001 study, T.A.M. Kruip reported that although milk increased by switching from 2x milking to an AMS, fertility measured by the 56-day nonreturn rate stayed almost the same (see Table 2). Though it appears this number is higher with 3x milking, Kruip states in his report that this number doesn’t match the other research (could be attributed to the small number of farms in this study) and that fertility in an AMS facility is actually unchanged.

Like many changes on a dairy farm, a well-designed facility, proper nutrition and good management are essential to making them work. Adding milking robots to your farm just adds a new element to the mix.

Measuring Success

Milking Robots Key Performance Indicators

One of the most important parameters to look at is the kg of milk/robot/day or kg of fat/robot/day. See what works best for you. 

Learn More
milking robots Trouw Nutrition Shur-Gain robot farm Canadian Dairy

Milk Speed, Box Time and Your Bottomline

An important KPI to consider for an AMS herd is the time needed to milk the cows. This is a combination of the time needed to prepare the cow before milking (stimulation time or treatment time), the milking time, and the post milking time.

Learn More
robotic milking, milk speed, box time, trouw nutrition, shur-gain

Cow Traffic Systems in Robot Milking

Critically evaluating the different cow traffic systems is difficult as each has its ardent advocates. All three cow traffic systems work well, so it is important for
producers to select the system that best suits them, promotes
cow well-being, and meets their goals.

Learn more
cow traffic systems, robot milking, trouw nutrition, shur-gain

Robot Milking and Dealing with Fetch Cows: A Complete Overview

A fetch cow is a cow that does not come to the robot voluntarily to be milked within a certain interval defined by the producer. They can have a serious impact on your herd's performance. Here's how to handle them. 

Learn More
robot milking, fetch cows, canadian dairy, trouw nutrition, shur-gain

Udder Health in Robot Milking

Mastitis is a serious and costly disease and measures taken to reduce the incidence in a herd will be well rewarded. 

Learn more
robot milking, udder health, mastitis, trouw nutrition, shur-gain